Behind Lori Baer
We arrived at Shady Trails, both of us in less than fine condition. It had been a short, tense ride. Tommy’s knuckles had been white on the steering wheel. He’d snorted a couple of times and had wrung the wheel. He’d been strangling whomever he imagined had been prowling around the house last night.
I had been mulling cutting our excursion short, trying to convince myself we’d learned enough about Lori, discovered things we could not have imagined, even gotten an edge on Vider and Mavic, maybe. I had begun thinking that interviewing Phyllis Shaw would be sufficient. Jaunting to Champaign-Urbana would be overkill.
Then we arrived at 10 Deer Path.
I hadn’t had much experience with trailer parks, except seeing them on television, splintered backgrounds for nicely coifed reporters exuding about tornados. I thought of them as insubstantial and transitory.
Shady Trails put trailer parks in a good light. It looked and felt like a community populated by decent people. It looked more like a pleasant suburban track than a caravan camp. The doublewides were the reason; they were dead ringers for small, bolted-to-the-ground houses. Most were well tended, with small flower gardens in front.
Phyllis Shaw lived in a pale yellow doublewide trimmed in white and chalet froufrou. She kept a miniature lawn in front. A pair of clippers could do it in five minutes. There was a small porch with white railing. A couple of flower boxes perched on the railing.
We climbed out of the Suburban and up the short stairs. It occurred to me that neither of us had given a thought to arming ourselves, which attests to the power of appearance. I rang the bell. We hadn’t called ahead and were taking a chance on finding her in.
The door opened as I removed my hand from the buzzer, as if Phyllis Shaw had been expecting us. She cracked open the door. We had a glimpse of her in the darkness, caught the scent of quince, and saw the chain lock.
We introduced ourselves. Tommy produced his credentials. We explained our purpose. She wasn’t impressed and began closing the door on us without a word.
I said, “Kelli Mahon said you’d help us.”
Kelli carried weight with her. She closed the door, rattled the chain, opened the door, and invited us in.
Phyllis Shaw was tall, angular, and skinny. Her face was a long, thin triangle, and her features followed along. Her eyes were set wide; her was nose narrow and aquiline; her lips were pencil lines and she tended to purse them every few minutes. She wore a housedress fussy with flowers. It hung on her limply, as on a hanger.
The door opened into her living room, where she offered us the sofa. It was flowery. Huge pillows formed its back.
Tommy and I sat. We leaned against the pillows, sank to semi-recumbence, raised ourselves, and spent the rest of the time perched on the edge of the seat cushions, which were mushy like fresh marshmallows and nearly enwrapped our thighs.
She sat diagonally across from us in an upholstered rocker. Tommy started by addressing her as Miss Shaw.
She pursed her lips. “Ms.,” she corrected.
“Ms. Shaw,” he repeated.
“You think this Chicago person killed Floyd?” she said ahead of him. “Kelli must a got a good laugh at that.”
“She told us the possibility was investigated at the time of the fire,” Tommy said.
“I was always suspicious he was killed. Haven’t changed my mind about it.”
“Why do you think somebody killed him?”
She smiled slyly. She revealed a missing tooth, a canine or incisor; I wasn’t certain from where I sat. “You mean forgetting that if anybody needed killing, it was Floyd?”
Tommy indicated no surprise or excitement. He was Mr. Unflappable. Calm as dead water, he said, “There were people who wanted to kill your brother?” By the slightest inflection, it was a question.
She treated us to more sly smiling. She played her tongue around and through her tooth gap. “What’s the old saying? To know him was to hate him? Something like that, right?”
“Close enough,” he said. “What was his problem? Why’d people want him dead?”
She held up a long, thin hand. Her veins bulged in large blue knots. She sing-sang, “Let me count the ways.” She ticked them with her fingers as she went. “He was a drunk. He had a loose and dirty mouth. What do you think? That two or one. Two, I’d say. He was a brute. And last, and best, he was a pervert. Lovely qualities in a brother, wouldn’t you say?”
“His drinking did him in,” Tommy said provocatively.
“The police thought so. Kelli did, too.”
“Maybe they’re right. But, sorry for me, I knew Floyd a whole lot better than they did. He was a drunk, no doubt about it. But he was a public drunk. He did his drinking in bars, where he could get good and stupid and embarrass himself, and me and my momma.”
“The police and fire reports said empty beer bottle were in the bedroom.”
She worked the space in her teeth. She leaned back and rocked. “To him, beer was like soda pop’s to me. Nothing. Good for a few burps.”
“You drink enough of it and it’ll have you on your kister in no time,” Tommy said, again detached.
She had a penetrating stare and she directed its full intensity at him. Shaking her head, she said, “You’re talking about normal people. People like you and me. I’m figuring you’re normal. A couple of beers get us reeling.” She eyed Tommy like she thought he knew a thing or two about drinking beer, like maybe he wasn’t quite her brand of normal. “At least they would me. But not Floyd. Maybe a case.”
“I don’t remember how many bottles the report said where in the trailer,” I said.
“It wasn’t a case,” she said.
“You’re right, Ms. Shaw, it couldn’t have been. The police and the fire departments would have noted twenty-four bottles of beer. They might even have surmised Mr. Shaw had a friend or two over. A case is a lot for one person in one night.”
She nodded and accelerated her rocking, only to halt abruptly. “He didn’t have nobody over, though. You want to know why?”
“If you want to tell us,” Tommy said.
“Nobody liked him good enough to go to his trailer. He was a drunk and a brute,” she said, clenching her hand into a bony fist and waving it in front of us, making her point and causing me to flinch.
“But Ms. Shaw,” I said, “the autopsy put him at point one- eight. That’s drunk in anybody’s book.”
“So I heard. But the report, it didn’t say what kind of liquor he was drinking, now did it?”
“We didn’t see anything about a bottle.”
“Thing’s ain’t always perfect. Besides, who says he had to be drinking in the trailer? I know Floyd. I mean, I knew him better than anybody. He was a bar drinker. He had other things to do at the trailer, especially after he married Lorlilee.”
“What was their marriage like?” Tommy asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Was it happy, unhappy?”
“What do you think? He married Lorilee for one reason. How good could it be?”
We waited for the reason, and when it didn’t come, I asked, “Why’d he marry her?”
“He couldn’t have me. I said, ‘No more.’ ‘Course, with Floyd, you had to do more than say it.”
“No more what?” I asked.
She’d resumed her rocking. My question stopped her again.
“I told you. Floyd was a pervert.”
We waited. We listened to the trailer creak in the noon sun. It was another warm day. We’d been lucky with the weather, I thought, but how long could our luck last? Tommy experimented with leaning back on the sofa, sunk into the pillows, decided forward was better, and rested his elbows on his knees to take the pressure off his back. I was in the same position.
The waiting went on for a couple of minutes. It was tensing me. I glanced at Tommy. He had his eyes glued to Phyllis Shaw. She stared back at him, motionless in her rocker. But she was different. Her eyes glistened, and I knew something painful was active in her mind, something she’d probably tucked away, kept concealed, until Tommy and I strolled into her home.
“Floyd had girls when he was a boy. The girls liked him then. The drinking, the strutting, they liked that. It made him seem bigger, made him look dangerous. You know, girls, they like the older boys. But they weren’t enough for Floyd.” She touched a finger to an eye. “Can you pass me those tissues?”
She pointed behind us. The tissue box was on a parson’s table. I grabbed it and handed it to her. She took a tissue and set the box next to her rock. She dabbed the corners of her eyes.
“It’s something you want to forget,” she said. “I’ve been trying for years. It goes away sometimes. Other times I’m in here talking to myself about it.”
She was wearing mascara on her eyelashes, which where extraordinarily long and curled, and blue liner on her eyelids. She wasn’t precisely crying, but her eyes were moist, and her dabbing had tie-died the tissue. She squeezed it into a ball, placed it in her lap, and pulled out a fresh one.
“He started on me in earnest at ten. He tried at eight. But he didn’t get far. Daddy stopped him. Then he got killed.” Tears began flowing. “My Daddy was a good man. A car hit him coming home from work. The driver, he didn’t stop. The cops, they never found out who killed him.” She sniffled. “Like a kid, I am. It’s been years and it still feels like that day.”
She used up the second tissue and put it in her lap next to the first. Her make-up was washed away. Without it, she looked older, and very worn.
“We didn’t get fresh flowers on his grave before Floyd was on me. I went to my mother. She screamed and yelled at Floyd. Told him to leave me alone. Threatened him. He laughed at her. He knew she couldn’t do nothing. She wasn’t Daddy, wasn’t strong like Daddy. And she’d never call the cops. He was making the money. We couldn’t live without him. Trouble was, I couldn’t live with him either. I learned not to say anything. He’d come back to me if I did. He’d beat me. Every time, it got worse, until he nearly put me the hospital. Floyd, he was big and he was mean. He was already fighting in bars, fighting those older than him with about as little sense as him.” She wiped her eyes. She threw up her hands, then settled them in her lap, laving them one over the other. “I couldn’t do anything about him.”
She was drifting. Tommy reined her in. “You said he couldn’t get you, Ms. Shaw.”
“Later, when I was grown up. When I didn’t care if he killed me or not.” She got her hands and the tissue going again, until it was spent and she added it to the collection of ruins in her lap.
We waited for her to calm down. I busied myself by conducting a thorough study of my deck shoes. I’d need to replace them soon. I was nervousness. I’d thought I’d had a difficult time of it growing up. But there were worst things than being poor, working, living with a grandmother and aunt who desperately needed long, solid doses of commonsense. It wasn’t like what Phyllis Shaw had endured. Not remotely like what Lori suffered through. I always felt sorry for myself. Well, not always, but often. My reaction to Chuck Gatewood the first time I’d met him. My resentment, the idea he was a rich kid playing at business. That was my self-pity percolating in me. In front of Phyllis Shaw, I felt chilled, uncomfortable. I was embarrassed with myself.
I looked over at Tommy. He was focused on Mrs. Shaw. His eyes flitted as he ran them over her, up and down, resting on the balled tissues, reading her.
He said, “Then Mrs. Gate—Lorilee came into the picture.”
She stared at him, rocked a little. “I didn’t like her much. But I was glad for her. She made keeping Floyd away easier.”
I asked, “What was their marriage like?”
Her tears had dried. Her sniffles had vanished. She was leaning back, rocking slowly, relaxed. “I stayed far away from those two. Floyd was Floyd. No changing him. He was in the bars at night, like always, like he didn’t have a care in the world. He’d been working at Staley when he married her. He was a laborer. He probably looked like a good catch to her. You know, man with a job, money you can count on. I don’t know how it is up in Chicago, but here, it’s hard to come by, especially these days. Not once, not when my Daddy was alive. But now, it’s different. Not good different.”
“It’s hard up where we come from,” Tommy said.
She nodded. “I guess it’s hard no matter where you go. Anyway, it was a shit job, a nothing job. And he couldn’t hold onto it. Not even with the unions, he couldn’t hold onto it. He got himself fired, and the next thing you know, Lorilee’s supporting them. Like I said, I made it a point not to see them. I was pretty good about not seeing Floyd. I didn’t go to bars. Still don’t. Not seeing him was easy. Her, it was different. I’d see her every once in a while at the grocery. Their trailer’s not too far from here and we all go to the same grocery. She looked banged up sometimes when I saw her. Scrawny, too, and old for how young she was. I could see she was a baby. But Floyd had her looking old the way he treated her.”
She rocked about five times. “I tried being nice without giving out the idea I wanted to see them. You know, have them come over for Sunday dinner. She wasn’t much of a talker. ‘Course, neither was I. We usually asked each other how we were. Lied about it like most people. Said we were fine. Left it at that.”
She fiddled with the balled tissues in her lap. She arranged them in a straight line. “I guess you could say it wasn’t such a good marriage. I figure she was wondering what she’d got herself into pretty quick. Maybe even wondering how to get out, like me wondering how to get away from him.”
“Lorilee’s father worked at Staley. Did Floyd know him?” Tommy asked.
She grabbed the balls of tissues and squeezed a couple of times, treating them as if they were a stress ball. “Could of. But he knew Cal Baer better from the bars, that I know for sure.”
Tommy probed. “How?”
“Came home one night bloodied up and damning Cal Baer to hell.”
“Floyd had a run in with Caleb Baer?” I asked.
“Floyd had run ins with everybody. Put a few drinks in him and he didn’t care who it was. Cal Baer was no exception.” She shook her head. “Cal Baer, he was cut from the same cloth as Floyd. Older, meaner, tougher, though. Him and the one he ran with. Joined at the hip, they were.”
“Hoary Ozamondie,” Tommy said.
“Hoary. Funny name, don’t you think?”
“Did they fight often?” I asked.
“I didn’t keep track of Floyd’s fights. If I did, I’d of had no time for anything else. Not that I was interested. About all that interested me was maybe somebody hit him good and hard. You know, hard enough to take care of my problem.”
“But you remember that fight?” Tommy said. “Was it special in some way?”
She shook her head. “No. Maybe because he was damning Cal Baer so long. On and on about what a bastard he was. ‘Course special because he married Cal Baer’s girl. Could be Floyd was busy getting revenge on the old bastard by marrying the girl. Good thing he was dead by then, or else I’d probably be telling you he killed Floyd.”
She stopped rocking. She sagged in the rocker, looking frail and tired. I thought we were finished. It seemed time to leave.
“Who’s this friend of yours, this friend from Chicago you’re helping? You never said.”
“Lori Gatewood. She’s the wife of my friend who was murdered,” I said.
She stared at me skeptically. “You talking about Lorilee?”
I nodded. “When I first met her and hired her to work for me, she was Lori Baer. She married my friend later. His name was Charles Gatewood. I found him murdered in Chicago on Saturday.”
She studied her hands. She turned them over. She caressed her fingers. After a long while, she said, “You’re doing more than helping an old friend.” Her eyes moved back and forth between us. “You two think maybe she had a hand in your friend’s killing.”
I nodded. Tommy sat like a statue.
“Like I said, I wasn’t close to Lorilee. But I was close enough to see she was milquetoast, pure and simple. Floyd controlled her, like a daddy does his child. Even if I’d wanted to acquaint myself with her, Floyd would never have let it happen. He kept her leashed pretty close to home. ‘Course, he let her out to work. Floyd knew where his bread was buttered. But he didn’t like her having acquaintances of her own.” She rocked a few times, thinking over what she’d said. “Lots of men, as far as I can see, are like Floyd was with his control thing. Maybe not as bad. But they like to run a woman, if you know what I mean. It’s why I gave up on them. After Floyd did what he did to me, I had no place in my heart for them.”
Her eyes glistened, but she didn’t cry. “Lorilee wasn’t like most women. Milquetoast was what I said and what I mean. I didn’t see everything that took place in that trailer, but I saw enough to show me a beaten dog had more spirit than her. She couldn’t stand up to him, and she couldn’t go behind his back. She just did like he wanted. Can’t expect a person like that to wake up one day and kill somebody.” She rocked quietly, then added, “Don’t expect people change much.”
“Then who do you think killed your brother?” I asked.
She shrugged and rocked at a leisurely pace. “Like I said, it could have been anybody. But you two give me a little hope.”
“How so?” Tommy asked.
“You’re thinking somebody killed him and you’re trying to find the killer. That’s more than anybody else has ever done. Floyd was a damn fool, that’s for sure. But he was too good at drinking to kill himself over it.”
She stopped rocking and stared at us intensely, giving me the sensation something lurked behind us. I even turned my head slightly to look.
“I don’t want you two to get the wrong idea about me and Floyd. I hated him, and I didn’t shed a tear for him. But I’m a decent person. If somebody’s killed by somebody, then I think the somebody doing the killing needs to pay for it. Floyd was a bastard, to me, to everybody. But at least I can testify to his not killing anybody. And nobody should have killed him.”
Tommy pulled a TLA business card from his credentials folder. “In case anything occurs to you,” he said, as he handed it to her.
It was baking in the Suburban. Tommy started the car, powered down the windows, and cranked the air conditioner to cool off the cab.
I was battling mixed feelings about Lori as Tommy pulled away. It tried sorting things out. Lori had been an abused child. Somehow, from somewhere in herself, she had found the courage to turn him in, to end her abuse by putting her own father in prison. It required strength and determination to do it. Those were the qualities I recognized in her when she had worked for me.
But then she reverted to playing little girl and made a bad choice. She married Floyd Shaw, who was a remarkable copy of her father. Again she was the object of abuse. According to Phyllis Shaw, Lori took whatever Floyd threw at her. Lori was milquetoast. That went on for a while, and then the situation changed. Floyd turned up dead. Maybe it was an accident, as the official reports said. Maybe not. Despite what Phyllis Shaw thought, Lori was capable of freeing herself. She had done it with her father. So, maybe she rid herself of Floyd. There was no real way to know. There was just the possibility, and that was disturbing enough for me.
I felt my arm being nudged by something. I looked down and saw a map in Tommy’s hand. He was tapping my arm with it. “Let’s visit the scene of the crime,” Tommy said. “Where do I turn?”
I took the map, unfolded it, and located Hillcrest Park and Prairie Lane. It was within a mile of where we were. I gave him directions. “What do you expect to find? It’s been a long time.”
“Seeing the scene can give you ideas. The years don’t matter.”
Hillcrest Park fit my stereotype of a trailer park. It looked like a junkyard. Singlewide, rusting metal trailers populated it. They were lined up one after the other at thirty-degree angles abutting decaying blacktop streets. They balanced on cinderblocks. A stiff breeze could easily have toppled them. Rusting rides, pickups and old sedans, were parked in front of a few. Bumper stickers seemed to be holding most of them together. The stickers advertised fast food establishments, brands of beer, and obscure amusement attractions. The tiny yards were wrecks thick with paper and plastic junk.
No trailer had a number, but we found 10 Prairie Lane without difficulty by counting up from the first hulk.
Tommy rolled the Suburban to a stop across the street from the trailer. He seemed reluctant about turning off the motor. I could have reminded him this was his idea, but I empathized with him. I’d never drag the Mustang to a place like this.
The trailer was pretty beaten up, but I imagined it was still better than the Shaw trailer had been. It sported a fine patina of rust, dents, and dirt, and blended into the neighborhood as if camouflaged.
The windows were black in the sunlight. The front door was closed. A hasp and large lock secured it. It was a strong indication nobody was home, unless whoever lived there locked up and shimmied back in through a window. It also showed an unmistakable distrust of neighbors, who, given the general dishevelment of things, probably deserved the wariness.
“I’ll go,” I said. I was being kind.
“I’m better at this,” he said. He was being starkly honest. “Keep an eye on the car.”
Tommy climbed out of the Suburban and strolled to the door. He looked around for a doorbell and finding none pounded on the door. I heard him hammering from inside the Suburban. If anybody was in there, the noise was sufficient to scare the person out.
I would have called it a good effort and returned to the Suburban, but not Tommy. He circumnavigated the trailer, setting sail from the right. He peeked into the front window and I assumed any other window he found during his journey. Back in front, he looked at me and threw up his hands.
I was grateful. I estimated it saved us a half-hour. I shifted my gaze between him and my watch and I waved him back. We still had plenty of time for a stop in Champaign.
I didn’t pay much attention to him as he started across the street. I glanced behind me, through the rear of the Suburban, down the street.
What followed was a residual reaction fostered by Saturdays chauffeuring Frankie and Mae Rose to and from baseball and dance and soccer. I had learned to be very attentive to traffic, as there were other parents doing exactly as I was and giving more thought to their morning coffee they may have missed, or the phone call they needed to make, or where in the middle of making.
It didn’t appear to be much at first glimpse. Hurtling objects are deceptive. It’s why trains squash the unwary. Why people walk in front of speeding cars without a care and end up dead. It’s why I wasn’t ever good at baseball, because I constantly misjudged the speed of an onrushing ball. Not so bad, really, except for the line drives. My brother never had the problem, except for one day, the worst day to have it.
I caught it first when it seemed to be idling several trailers back. I turned around to look at Tommy’s progress. I wasn’t worried. I just wanted to check on his whereabouts. He was stopped on the edge of the street. He was giving the trailer a last look over.
Then something about the pickup registered with me. I couldn’t place it, but the truck, or something about the truck, was familiar. Watching Tommy finally set out across the street, it clicked with me. It was the color: an odd lime green, faded by time, pocked and rusted with use. I craned around for another look. I broke into a cold swear at what saw.
The pickup was moving, heading toward us, at Tommy. I was having a hard time judging its speed, but it was, faster than it should have been going on the narrow street.
I turned back to Tommy. He was at the halfway point. His head was turned in the opposite direction, away from the Suburban and me, and the lime pickup. I turned back again and saw I was right about the truck. It was moving fast, closing on Tommy quick, like a surplus missile.
I didn’t think. It was no time for thinking. Instinct took over; instinct I’d honed raising a couple of kids who could find trouble while tucked in bed. I lunged for the steering wheel. I pounded a fist on the horn and held it there. The Suburban’s horn was tuned to be loud and obnoxious, and unmistakable.
I was stretched out and could barely see over the dashboard. I was depressing the horn with my right hand. My left arm was pinned to my side, locked in place between me and the driver’s seat. I wanted to signal him, to point back at the speeding pickup, but I couldn’t.
The horn startled Tommy. I saw his head whip around to the Suburban and then around more, until he was staring down the street. That’s when I let up on the horn.
I snapped upright and looked back. The pickup was on us, only a car-length behind the Suburban. I shifted to Tommy just as he sprang off the road. I didn’t see him land. I saw and felt the pickup blur by. It was a cacophony of rattling metal, gurgling gases, and swoosh of displaced air. The Suburban rocked like a dinghy in rough water.
I threw open the passenger door to check on Tommy. But the door was faster than me. It snapped back and cracked me in the ankle I’d managed to dangle to the running board. I’d lost my exit momentum when I’d stopped to peer after the truck, attempting to spy a plate number, to catch a look at the driver. I didn’t get so much as a stray letter or number, and as for the driver, I could only say it might have been a man.
I yelped when the door hit me, and I hit back with my injured foot, forcing it open again. This time I stopped its rebound with my hand and made it out onto the ground. I limped quickly around to the front of the Suburban.
Tommy was there on the ground. His head was under the Suburban’s bumper. The rest of him was sprawled over the shoulder. His feet extended onto the edge of the blacktop.
He was stirring and I whispered a thank you. How could I explain getting Tommy killed to Beth?
I knelt and surveyed him for wounds. He seemed okay, except for his head. He had a nasty gash on his forehead. It was bleeding profusely, staining a cheek red, soaking his shirt collar, and painting the ground. I saw blood on the bumper and figured he had jumped head first against it.
He started to push himself up. I touched his back. “Lie still. You’re hurt. I’ll call for help.”
“It’s nothing,” he growled. He got up on his knees.
“Where you out? You could have a concussion.”
“Saw my share of stars, that’s for sure. But I was conscious the whole time. Did you get a look at him?”
“It was a pickup. I think a man was driving.” I described the odd lime green color.
He reached in his back pocket and came out with a handkerchief. He pressed it against his wound. “Mae Chen’ll kill me for ruining another hankie. Probably make me carry tissue like an old lady. When’d you start seeing it?”
I helped him to his feet. He was wobbly. I took his arm and steadied him. “After my birthday.” I thought for a second. “After I found Chuck. I think I saw it at McCarry’s and later at St. Mary’s cemetery.”
He was holding the handkerchief to his forehead, nodding.
“We need to get you a little first aid,” I said.
“There’s a kit in the car,” he said. “It appears somebody’s interested in us.”
I helped him to the open door. He hoisted himself onto the passenger’s seat. I entered through the rear door and found the kit under the seat.
“Who’d be following us?” he asked, as I stood in front of him opening the kit.
“I saw it all.”
“What’s that?” Tommy asked.
I looked around the Suburban and saw a man across the street standing in the doorway of the trailer next door to the old Shaw address. He was waving.
When he saw me, he shouted, “I saw it all.” He waved. “Come on over.”